In recognition of Earth Day, which is later this month, we take an investigative look into the environmental impact of video games at all states of their development cycle. In this report, we look to several experts on the matter including Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council, to ultimately help us answer the question "how green is my game?"
We think about a lot of things when playing our favorite games -- how to rack up kills or whether to use a chainsaw or flamethrower on that zombie horde that's about to make us into a human happy meal. The last thing we think about is picking up those empty shells for recycling after a shootout, or wondering whether torching the undead releases carcinogens.
While playing a game, we rarely think about how we affect the virtual environment. Unfortunately, that's often the case regarding the real-life environment, too.
The environmental impact of video games is quickly becoming harder to ignore, however, especially as the industry becomes bigger and more mainstream. Traditionally, the industry hasn't exactly been known for its green thumb. In a Greenpeace list published in January, consumer electronics companies were rated by eco-friendliness: Nintendo ranked dead last, Microsoft was second-to-last place, and Sony fell somewhere in the middle of the pack.
"Very few people in the game sector take this issue seriously and they see themselves as different," says Casey Harrell, Greenpeace International Electronics campaigner. Harrell explains why game companies tend to fall at the bottom of the reports: "There's not enough scrutiny and, perhaps, not enough competition either."
The good news is the industry is finally starting to show signs of going green, and gamers can also help. GamePro takes a stage-by-stage look at the environmental impact of game production, distribution, usage, and disposal, as well as green initiatives in each area.
Manufacturing and Distributing a Game: The Chemicals and Carbon Between Us
The big baddies that go into the materials used to produce consoles, game discs, and packaging are toxic chemicals called polyvinyl chloride (PVC), phthalates, and brominated flame retardants (BFRs). The first two are used to make soft plastics like wire casing, and can cause problems in human reproduction. BFRs are known to accumulate in the human body and they can eventually cause abnormal brain development, affecting learning, memory, and behavior.
In the 2008 Greenpeace report Playing Dirty, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles were tested and found to contain high levels of phthalates; the Wii, however, was phthalate-free and its wiring was PVC-free. On the green side though, Microsoft made a commitment to remove these toxins from its hardware products by 2010, while Sony hasn't yet set a date by which it will phase out its use of phthalates.
When it comes to the game disc, the news is pretty good. According to ClearCarbon, a green consultancy, the average carbon footprint of a disc went down from 1.1 lbs in 2006 to 0.98 lbs in 2008. This includes the manufacturing, packaging, and shipping of the disc and case. That might seem small, but it adds up: for a game selling 1 million copies, that's a decrease of 120,000 lbs in carbon dioxide output.
Renee Morin, carbon project manager at ClearCarbon, says a lot of the carbon footprint comes from the game casing, where the bulk of the weight and material lies. "What's interesting that we found in our earlier studies is figuring out where the 'hot spots' are or where the carbon resides," Morin says. "The cases actually have a lot of carbon embedded in them."
Fortunately, this is an area where some game publishers are improving. As of December 2009, a number of Xbox 360 games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Left 4 Dead 2 started shipping in a case called the "Eco-Box."
"We constantly look for ways to be more efficient and use fewer materials," a Microsoft spokesperson says. "Our emphasis on sustainability extends to Xbox 360 packaging where we have banned the use of PVC, reduced the packaging from the original Xbox [games] by approximately 30 percent, and removed all styrene from the internal packaging." According to box maker Viva Group, the lighter and thinner game cases made of recyclable material represent a 15 percent reduction in carbon footprint from previous cases. Nintendo claims it will start packaging some games in lightweight, eco-friendly casing.
Playing Games: The Power Struggle
According to a 2008 U.S. report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, "consoles collectively consume an estimated 16 billion kilowatt-hours per year, roughly equal to the annual electricity use of the city of San Diego." With the exception of the Wii, current-generation consoles are energy hogs that can easily outstrip laptops and DVD players in power consumption.
Since then, Sony introduced a firmware upgrade to the PS3 with power-save settings that automatically turn your console off after a period of inactivity. The new PS3 Slim also reportedly consumes less power.
"SCE is continuously working to reduce power consumption of the PS3," says John Koller, SCEA's director of hardware marketing. "The new form factor introduced last fall is 30 percent more energy efficient."
Meanwhile the Nintendo DSi also consumes less power relative to previous DS models. "We improved the design of some of our latest products, such as the Nintendo DSi, to minimize their energy consumption when in use," Nintendo claims.
Gamers can take responsibility, too, and turn off consoles that are not in use, or even unplug them since many still draw power even when inactive. As a bonus, you shave your energy bill: the NRDC estimates the annual energy cost for an Xbox 360 that's always left on at $143, while one that's turned off after use costs $14 on average.
The issue of console power usage could also come under legislation soon. In September 2009, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced the Green Gaming Act that would require the Department of Energy to determine whether video-game console energy efficiency standards are needed. The act has the support of the big three console makers as well as the NRDC, and is currently up for further investigation.
"As millions of American families use video-game consoles, it is increasingly important to promote 'green gaming,'" Menendez says.
Disposing of Games: Toxic Karma
Discarded consoles and discs become electronic waste or "e-waste," of which there is already plenty.
According to the United Nations, some 20 to 50 million tons of total e-waste are generated each year, and, though it's difficult to track, video-game products are likely a significant contributor. Plus, a high percentage of e-waste we produce is thought to end up in developing countries.
"[For] countries such as China and India with large informal recycling sectors, it is simply not possible to even estimate the percentage of the hidden flow of e-waste," a Greenpeace report claims. "Other regions are also under threat of illegal imports of e-waste, such as African countries where donations for refurbishment and reuse are simply a pretext for the dumping of non-repairable devices."
Scrapyard workers and even children are exposed to the toxic chemicals. In addition, a lot of e-waste is incinerated, releasing toxins into the air, and eventually ending up in the soil and water. So while we might think this problem is exported away, those toxic chickens could conceivably come home to roost one day.
Regarding e-waste, Greenpeace criticized Microsoft and Nintendo for their lack of voluntary take-back programs for customers. Sony scored points for reportedly using approximately 17,000 tons of recycled plastics in its products in 2008-10 percent of all plastics it used that year. Gamers, meanwhile, should look into state or local e-waste recycling programs, or consider donating unwanted consoles.
Ultimately, it's not enough for game companies to simply adhere to current regulations. "Being green is going above and beyond the laws and being actual leaders," Casey Harrell of Greenpeace says.
Microsoft agrees more can be done. "We acknowledge that more work remains to achieve our sustainability goals and continue to improve upon our efforts," a spokesperson says. "We are committed to making progress on our environmental issues."
Gamers should also go "above and beyond," by reducing energy consumption and disposing of e-waste properly, while buying more eco-friendly products. Even though most of us might not be as environmentally minded as we could be when it comes to gaming, it's never too late to start thinking about how green our gaming habits are.